Inspiring Environmental Stewards

Blog: Empowering the Next Generation of Ocean Stewards

May 23, 2015

by Patricia Newman

Let’s face it, ocean plastic depresses people. Many feel helpless to affect change. Others don’t see the connection between their habits and the health of the ocean. So when I speak with children about marine debris, I empower them to make a difference.

First, I ask kids how they use the ocean. Popular responses include boogie boarding and fishing. With a little prodding they add transportation to the list. And some child prodigy always quietly raises a hand to say that the ocean provides nearly two-thirds of our oxygen.

Few kids are familiar with the complex ecosystem that exists below the surface, so I show them Plastic, Ahoy! photographer Annie Crawley’s video, “Blue Heart Ocean Soul.” Manta rays fly across the screen. Reef sharks patrol rocky crevices. Schools of fish dart and swerve as one. The kids’ faces beam with every shift in color, size or shape.

At the same time, I perform a live demonstration with a “model” ocean to illustrate our legacy of whaling, chemical fertilizers, fossil fuel pollution, overfishing, litter, and global warming. What was once clear salt water becomes a murky, congested mess.

Right about this point I see desperation in their eyes. They want to know how they can help. But they don’t drive, they don’t vote, and they’re still sheltered by the adults in their lives. So I share a secret—they can make a HUGE difference by focusing on single-use plastic, plastic that’s used once and tossed. Water bottles. Plastic utensils. Styrofoam lunch trays. Lunch baggies. Straws. I ask questions to encourage them to take note of the single-use plastic in their lives. We brainstorm ways around the plastic. Stainless steel water bottles. Bamboo utensils or metal utensils from home. Reusable lunch trays. Wax paper or reusable baggies. Paper straws or no straws at all. And I leave them empowered to make changes at home or in school.

One teacher wrote to say, “<em>Plastic, Ahoy! </em>inspired [my] sixth graders to become change agents.” A group of fifth graders in San Diego made reusable shopping bags from old t-shirts and replaced their plastic lunchroom utensils with their own utensils from home. First graders in Alabama measured their lunchroom’s trash output before and after switching to reusable lunch trays. And an eighth grade in Sacramento argued against microbeads during a field trip to the state capitol.

One school that I visited required students to write a short essay about why they wanted to meet with me in a small group setting. A student named Avery wrote, “[Patricia Newman] is a world-changer…She inspires me to help the world become a better place. Her books help raise awareness of the danger that the earth faces.”

I’m grateful that students like Avery think it’s possible to change the world through the written word. When I was in elementary school, my favorite lessons connected to my life in some way. I write about conservation to provide a bridge between students and science, between students and current events, and between students and action. They will become the next scientists who bring biofuels to the mainstream market or find ways to clean up the existing trash in the ocean. Or the next author who takes up the conservation banner.

Patricia Newman is the 2015 Green Earth Book Award Winner in the Children’s Non-fiction category for her book Plastic Ahoy!: Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  The book follows three females scientists in a small research ship as they learn about the impact of the Garbage Patch on marine life.


To read previous blogs written by Bob Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Board Members Arthur Gowran and Max Hall, click here.


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